Where did you grow up? Would it make a good setting for a story in a particular genre or sub-genre?
I’ve been living in the past this week. The sale of my mother’s house went through a few days after I got back from San Antonio, and I’ve been in Derbyshire packing up, giving away, and disposing of several lifetimes’ worth of accumulated family stuff. It was more than a trip down memory lane. I don’t think my parents (or their parents) can ever have thrown away a document, photograph or memento, and I found all kinds of old black and white and sepia toned pictures on postcard and thick card. I can just about recognize my father’s mother as a young girl, and my father’s father as a handsome, swashbuckling soldier from the First World War, but there are many other faces from the late 1800s and early 1900s that are a complete mystery.
Clearing the house was as much a mental challenge as a physical one, and I didn’t have any energy left to focus on my WIP, but after a couple of days of speculating about these unknown people from a century ago I discovered that my subconscious had been busy re-shaping Derbyshire as the setting for a series of steampunk stories.
For anyone who’s wondering, steampunk is a subgenre of science fiction and fantasy. It’s usually based in a fantastical quasi-Victorian historical setting, with advanced machines based on steam power. Think dirigibles, carriages driven by mechanical horses, intrepid corset-wearing heroines, eccentric inventors and powerful mages.
Here’s why steampunk would be perfect for Derbyshire:
The White Peak
The lower, Southern end of Derbyshire is built on pale-colored limestone. It’s Jane Austen country – a place for ladies and gentlemen living a genteel life in civilised villages and beautiful stately homes like Chatsworth House, the original Pemberley.
The Dark Peak
The higher, Northern end of the county is built on dark, hard millstone grit. It’s an unforgiving world of rocky skylines and open moorland, isolated farms and spooky properties like North Lees Hall in Hathersage, the model for Charlotte Bronte’s Thornfield Hall. It’s the natural milieu of strong, self-sufficient anti-social types.
Derbyshire was the heartland of the Industrial Revolution. In 1771 Richard Arkwright built the world’s first successful water-powered cotton spinning mill in Cromford (it’s now a world heritage site). Others soon followed. Cromford also boasted a canal (built in the 1790s) and a steam railway (1830s). The land was mineral-rich, and there are mines everywhere – coal, lead, tin, fluorspar, and even a semi-precious stone known as Blue John. And a few miles away over the border in South Yorkshire is the city of Sheffield, which was renowned for the production of knives as far back as the fourteenth century. By the mid-1700s the entrepreneurs of Sheffield became expert in the production of steel, and invented Sheffield Plate, a form of silver plating.
There are plenty of ancient sites that could supply a perfect dash of magic to the mix. Arbor Low is a bronze age stone circle in open countryside surrounded by barrows. There’s Mam Tor, an Iron Age Hill Fort also known as the ‘shivering mountain’, and another moorland stone circle known as the Nine Ladies. There’s story potential in the custom of well-dressings to propitiate other-worldly powers and ensure a supply of clean water, and even more in the incredible story of the plague village of Eyam, which could easily be re-imagined as a cover story for an epic good v evil battle to the death. And last but not least, there are many legends about the crooked church spire in my home town, Chesterfield.
I’m not sure exactly how I’d put these elements together, but I’m thinking there should be a gently brought-up heroine from a grand house in the White Peak and a scrappy fighter from a crumbling gothic tower on the moors in the Dark. Or vice versa; not sure which would be more fun. I want a master swordsmith/silversmith from the ancient and legendary city of Sheffield, maybe on the run from bad people who want to use his skills for evil purposes. There must be a genius inventor with lots of fantastic machinery, and scary supernatural stuff on the ancient sites up on the moors, powered by ley lines and stone circles.
I’ve no immediate plans to write any of this, but I suspect that when I finally finish my WIP, I might need a breather and something totally different to work on for a week or two to clear my head and charge my batteries before I dive in to the sequel. I might play with a Derbyshire Steampunk short story or two and see what happens.
What are the defining features of your home town or county? What kind of story would you set there?